When then 4-month-old Zailynn Mars was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a terminal genetic disorder, her parents set out to fulfill a bucket list of happy experiences for their baby.
“Mainly we were trying to create memories for our daughter that every kid should have,” Zailynn’s father, Cory Mars of Neenah,Wisconsin, told ABC News.
Zailynn was 4 months old when she caught a cold. Seeming to get better at first, she suddenly went downhill and a trip to the emergency room revealed the baby was in extreme respiratory distress. Unable to breathe on her own, Zailynn was initially diagnosed with pneumonia. A battery of tests at Milwaukee Children’s Hospital later showed the baby had spinal muscular atrophy.
SMA is a degenerative disease that affects motor neuron cells in the brain and spinal cord and results in the inability to sit up, walk and eventually breathe. Doctors told the Mars family that children with Zailynn’s type of SMA generally do not live past the age of 2.
“I just broke down,” Cory told INSIDE EDITION. “I couldn’t even listen to this man tell me I wasn’t going to have my daughter around (when) I was old.”
And so the bucket list was born. “The bucket list was my wife’s idea,” said Cory. “She said ‘I need to come up with a list of things we can do as a family.’ What we’re doing is making memories with our daughter. We’re making this for our whole family. When she is gone for years, we’ll still have these memories,” Cory added.
With the help of their 3-year-old son, the couple compiled a list of 51 experiences for their daughter. First on the list was to walk down the aisle with her father. This was accomplished at a friend’s wedding when Mars carried his daughter down the aisle.
Number 29 on the list – go to a prom and have pictures taken – happened when friends and family hosted a mock prom at the family’s church. According to the list on Facebook, other to-do items include visiting the ocean, going on a picnic, riding on a train, and celebrating Christmas.
The disease, however, is beginning to advance. Zailynn, who is now 8 months old, has lost some motor functions and needs special breathing treatments on a regular basis.
“In August she could hold her head up a little bit for a couple of seconds with support, and now she’s got none of that,” Zailynn’s mother, Katie Mars, told Newsmax. “She’s got to lay flat pretty much 95 percent of the time so she keeps her airway clean.”
Yet, despite the march of the disease, Zailynn remains a happy, smiling baby who giggles and loves to be around other children.
“With my daughter’s story, we want her to bring a positive impact on everybody’s life,” Cory told ABC News. “She’s a very excited baby – happy to see anybody. If you look into her stroller, you’ll definitely get a smile.”